One who doesn’t conform to a formula

While not many would be benign to the idea of putting him up there among the legends of Formula One, it is only fair that Michael Schumacher is judged on the basis of what he has achieved rather than what he hasn’t. By G. Raghunath.

It helps to appreciate Michael Schumacher better when you break up his career into two segments — one before his retirement from Formula One at the end of the 2006 season and the other following his comeback in 2010.

The dichotomy makes for an interesting study. A seven-time world champion who came close to winning an eighth world title — in 2006 — as opposed to a washed-up driver who, in his second coming, has managed to ascend the podium just once in 54 races so far; an extremely aggressive, at times even supercilious, competitor who would go any length to attain his goals versus an also-ran caught in a morass of despair; an exceptionally dominant player, who didn’t merely defeat his adversaries but annihilated them, as against one merely going through the motions.

If fans felt blasé about Schumacher’s winning streak that seemed to stretch to eternity in the first phase of his career, they have now grown tired of watching the Mercedes driver, almost completely shorn of self-belief, struggling to even pick up the last few points in race after race. They are relieved that the German has finally decided to retire at the end of the season, thereby limiting the damage to a great name that once ruled Formula One.

In a way, and quite strangely too, the first part of Schumacher’s career serves as the trigger point for the excruciating second phase that seems to have imbrued, to some extent at least, the legacy of the former multiple champion. As Voltaire said, heroes are undone by what is best in them.

With the benefit of hindsight, people associated with the sport — even a majority of his staunch supporters — maintain that Schumacher should never have returned to racing in the first place. Some have even cast doubts over his status as one of the greatest drivers in the history of Formula One, questioning, if it weren’t for Ferrari, one of the most affluent teams on the circuit with massive racing budgets, would Schumacher have had that dominant run of the early 2000s?

In Formula One, big budget alone doesn’t guarantee success. If money power alone could pull a team through, Toyota Racing, one of the big spending teams in the 2000s, should have performed better than it actually did before pulling out of the sport by the end of 2009. In the 140 Grands Prix that the team competed in, Toyota Racing failed to win even a single race! So, as the cliché goes, the ideal ingredient for success is a perfect balance between man and machine.

Coming to Ferrari and Schumacher, it was a kind of relationship that any team or driver aspires for, but only a few can build. The German, with his near faultless work ethic, got the Maranello outfit to rally around him. He had the right car and he created the kind of ambience in the team that helped him perform to his best. It was only after Schumacher stepped into Ferrari in 1996 that things began to look up for the Prancing Horse, which was without a world drivers’ title after Jody Scheckter had won in 1979. With Ferrari, Schumacher won five successive world championships from 2000 to 2004.

For Ferrari, Schumacher was a hero who bailed the team out of years of hopelessness, a genius who understood his car inside out and a perfect team-man and loyalist who had made a huge personal investment in the team. And at Ferrari, Schumacher was made to feel completely at home (Ferrari head Luca Montezemolo had Enzo Ferrari’s office building converted into a spanking new villa for Schumacher to live in whenever he came down to Maranello for testing).

Ferrari would even soak up losses, both monetary (by way of fines) and reputational, without even as much as a frown as Schumacher drove himself to extremes (“Victory is a great emotion. I drive for this reason. This is my goal” was his famous quote back then). He would make an abominable manoeuvre in an attempt to run Giles Villeneuve off the track at Jerez in 1997, leading the FIA to strip him of all points earned in the season; he would allow team-mate Rubens Barrichello to pass him a few metres from the finish at Indianapolis in 2002 even after being fined heavily earlier for acting on ‘team orders’, and he would plonk his car in the way of Fernando Alonso during qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix in 2006 in a bid to gain pole position, but Ferrari always backed him to the hilt. This best describes the rapport between Schumacher and Ferrari.

It is unfortunate that Schumacher and Mercedes were unable to forge a winning partnership. Fans were all keyed up with the expectation of another world title as he teamed up once again with Ross Brawn — the man who was with Schumacher at Ferrari during his glorious years — at Mercedes, but unfortunately, the car at his disposal wasn’t as competitive as he would have liked it to be. To paraphrase former Formula One driver David Marshall Coulthard’s words, the one big punch that they were hoping for never really came (at least until the Korean Grand Prix of 2012).

And so, Schumacher’s second coming was nothing short of a disaster. This brings us to the question: where does Schumacher figure among the greats in the sport?

While not many would be benign to the idea of putting him up there among the legends of Formula One, it is only fair that Schumacher is judged on the basis of what he has achieved rather than what he hasn’t.

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August 25, 1991: Formula One debut for Jordan at the Belgian Grand Prix.

August 30, 1992: Wins first Formula One race, driving for Benetton, at the Belgian Grand Prix.

November 13, 1994: Wins the World Championship in controversial fashion as he collides with title rival Damon Hill of Williams in the last race of the season in Adelaide.

1995: Claims second World title with Benetton before moving to Ferrari.

October 26, 1997: Disqualified from the championship after trying to ram Jacques Villeneuve off the track in the season’s final race at Jerez.

October 8, 2000: Seals Ferrari’s first championship in 21 years with victory at Suzuka, Japan.

2001: Wins nine races and 11 pole positions on way to his second straight title with Ferrari.

2002: Makes it three championships in a row with 11 race wins and a podium spot in 17 Grands Prix.

2003: Claims a record sixth world title, breaking the mark set by Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio.

2004: Takes fifth consecutive title with 13 victories in 18 races, the most of any Formula One season.

September 10, 2006: Announces retirement at the age of 37.

October 1, 2006: Claims 91 {+s} {+t}, and last, Grand Prix win in Shanghai.

December 23, 2009: Announces return to Formula One with Mercedes, with the intention of reclaiming the World title within three years.

2010: Finishes a disappointing ninth in the standings in comeback season.

June 24, 2012: Places third in Valencia for first and only podium finish since returning to Formula One.

October 4, 2012: Announces second retirement after being replaced at Mercedes by Lewis Hamilton.

World Championships: 7 (1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004)

Consecutive wins: 7 (European Grand Prix to Hungarian Grand, 2004)

Most wins in a season: 13 (2004) Second places: 43 Podiums: 155 Pole positions: 68 Agencies